Arnold v. Arizona Department of Health Services
In Arnold v. Arizona Department of Health Services, 160 Ariz. 593, 775 P.2d 521 (Ariz. 1989), the Supreme Court of Arizona considered whether the state and county governments breached a statutory duty to provide mental health care to the chronically mentally ill (CMI patients). Arizona legislation required the Arizona State Hospital, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Maricopa County Health Department to coordinate their treatment efforts of CMI patients, but the three agencies were found to essentially operate independently. See Arnold, 775 P.2d at 527.
The trial court had entered a detailed order requiring the defendant agencies to provide community mental health services to all CMI patients class members, as prescribed by law. The county argued that it did not have a mandatory, non-discretionary duty to treat all CMI patients; rather, the county maintained that it had a general duty to treat the indigent sick. See Arnold, 775 P.2d at 531.
The Court held that the county, by statute, was required to provide mental health services to the CMI patients. See Arnold, 775 P.2d at 532. The trial court awarded attorneys' fees to the prevailing party; the court held the county responsible for one-third of the fees award using the private attorney general exception. See Arnold, 775 P.2d at 536-37.
The Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed the award of attorneys' fees. See Arnold, 775 P.2d at 537. Noting that Arizona had long recognized the private attorney general exception but not before applied it, the Court officially adopted and applied the exception. See id.
The Court observed that the decision to adopt the exception involved a choice of two policies--encouraging public interest litigation and preserving the American rule. See id. The Court reasoned that, while longstanding, the American rule had been "eroded" by statute and by state and federal judicial decisions. Id.
Given this erosion of the American rule coupled with the benefit to state citizens from public interest litigation, the Court deemed adoption of the private attorney general exception to be appropriate. See id.